Friday, August 30, 2013

My Watergate Summer Link

Forty years ago this Friday afternoon before Labor Day, I was sitting in the third floor newsroom of The New Haven Register trying to finish up my Sunday feature story. I don't recall what it was about, but I do remember suburban editor Larry French calling me over to tell me I had been chosen for a special assignment that could only be done later that afternoon.

It was the summer of the Watergate hearings. Gilda watched most of the hearings as she crocheted a quilt we still have (but hardly ever use). I would watch highlights on the evening news. Folksy Sam Ervin (D-NC) chaired the Senate committee. Sam Dash, whose daughter, Judy, I would work with four years later on Nation’s Restaurant News, served as lead majority counsel of the committee. Howard Baker was the ranking minority senator on the panel. The most vocal and righteously aggrieved Republican was Lowell Weicker, the junior senator from Connecticut.

With Congress in recess, Weicker was back home in Greenwich. At the last moment he agreed to sit for an interview, a personality profile.

The newsroom was mostly depleted by early weekend evacuees. Looking over their options, the top editors chose me, a 24-year-old reporter with barely a year of small town reporting on my résumé.

It was a hot muggy afternoon. I drove my un-airconditioned Chevy Vega down the Merritt Parkway to the Round Hill Road exit, made a few turns, and came to the Weicker estate. An heir to the Squibb pharmaceutical company, Weicker had a stately colonial home which, like my Vega, I soon discovered, lacked air conditioning. No a/c, not even a fan to agitate the dank hot air.

We sat and talked for about an hour in the study. Or maybe it was the living room. I sweat onto the fabric of the couch I sat on. I took pictures of Weicker and his then wife Bunny and one or more of their children walking on the property. 

I remember little about the interview except Weicker’s stern admonishment that no one should seek political gain from service on the Watergate committee. He forcefully asserted he would not run for president.

That was my lead. The front page Sunday story was picked up by the Associated Press. My first national story. Seven years later, reacting to the increasingly conservative tone of his party, Weicker sought the Republican presidential nomination. He did not get it. Ronald Reagan did.

Weicker served in the Senate until 1989, losing his seat to Joseph Lieberman. His liberal leanings led him to leave the GOP.  He was elected governor of Connecticut as an independent in 1990. It was during his first and only term of office that Connecticut enacted a state income tax.

About two years ago one Sunday afternoon, while Gilda and I were enjoying one of the best pizzas anywhere in Sal’s on Wooster Square in New Haven, I noticed Weicker, most probably with his current wife, sitting at one of the tables near the kitchen. I resolved to say hello to him, but didn't want to disturb his meal. As we were sitting near the front door, I decided to wait till he was on his way out. 

The encounter never happened. I didn't realize there was a side door near the kitchen. Weicker had shifted passed me again.